Dialogue and Difference: Ecumenical Encounters at Hillsdale

by Timothy Troutner

      We’ve all seen them – the freshmen matching wits over “predestination vs. free will” or “Catholicism vs. Protestantism,” testing their newfound powers across Saga tables or late into the night in the student union. Like sparring adolescent mountain goats, their youthful energy and inexperience predominate. In these poorly delineated arenas, many a straw man is born into the world, only to suffer a violent death at the hands of arguments dotted with woefully undefined terms. Charges of “heretic” are lobbed across denominational battle lines, and age-old tactics meet in inevitable stalemate, accompanied by escalating tones and unshakeable self-confidence.

        From across the dining hall, sophomores roll their eyes knowingly, confident in their superior worldliness. Veterans of Hillsdale’s pluralist religious terrain, they know that these skirmishes will soon die down. A few stragglers may take the fight to social media, but soon things will calm down and students come to terms with the fact that many of their fellow students follow different creeds, confessions, and concords with similar confidence and equal piety.

        These sophomores rightly realize that Hillsdale freshmen are thrown into a world of startling religious diversity. Although strongly skewing conservative and generally confined to the spectrum of avowedly orthodox Christianity, many denominational backgrounds feed into the Hillsdale melting pot. Inevitably, the first attempts at dialogue will fizzle, as many are venturing out of their evangelical or Catholic bubbles to encounter serious Christian differences for the first time. Never having seen a “papist” or someone who questions young earth creationism, it is no surprise if freshmen meet “like ships that pass in the night.”

One should not judge them too harshly, these sophomores say, for they know not what they do.

However, by late sophomore year, the uneasy peace begins to break. Friend groups can only avoid the differences in the faith at the heart of their various lives for so long. Those who do everything together begin to feel the separation imposed by Sunday morning. Classes on philosophy or the Reformation expose the hidden fault lines and religious dialogue begins to slowly come to the fore once more, with combatants now armed with greater conceptual abilities and a deeper recognition of history.

The stakes are higher now. The inevitable waves of high-church conversion begin to crest sophomore and junior year. As friends swim the Tiber or otherwise change their allegiance, the easy confidence of freshman year dies a slow death. Meanwhile, friends find that hormones and mutual interest outweigh the early proclamations that “I’d never date a ______ .” Ecumenical Hillsdating becomes full-blown interdenominational romance and the tension between couples builds, whether acknowledged or suppressed. Whether facing the liturgical/non-denominational divide or the fabled Lutheran/Catholic pairing, students are required to face the different ways they view the sacrament of the altar or the mother of God.

As the midpoint of their time at Hillsdale approaches, many find that they have come full circle, returning to the questions they mishandled as overeager freshmen. This time, they meet not as newly acquainted rivals but as trusted friends. The word “heretic” will only dropped in jest or as a halfhearted gesture, outweighed by the mutual acknowledgment of character and sincerity built over multiple semesters. (As an aside, the words of anathema are an ecclesial prerogative, and it is worth noting that even the Council of Trent refused to name names.) While the disagreements may still be sharp and the conflict painful, we can assume that charity and respect are givens.

Although much progress has been made by the time these issues are revisited by the more mature, rehashing debates that tore the church apart in 1054 and the early sixteenth century remains endlessly messy. Those who attempt it risk wading into a quagmire of terminology, distinctions, questionable narratives, and disagreements that appear bitter and intractable. While this might seem discouraging, the familiar faces on the other side of the table and the conviction that the Church can only be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic serve as ample incentive. The question remains: how can we avoid the mistakes of our younger years and engage in productive dialogue across the boundaries of religious traditions?

While I don’t claim to be an expert in ecumenical dialogue, I find the differences separating me from my friends and fellow students increasingly urgent and even tragic. My own imminent conversion to Catholicism has not led me to a place of satisfaction in my own fragment of full Christian unity. My turn toward the Catholic Church has only intensified my conviction that Hillsdale students have a calling to ecumenical dialogue.  Until the wee hours of the morning, among Turkish ruins, and on bus rides through the hills and valleys of Israel, I have struggled to understand and overcome the gulf that divides me from my friends.

Equipped with the lessons from these experiences and inspired by the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, his brilliant Reformed dialogue partner Karl Barth, and the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, I would like to offer a few suggestions for dialogue across Christian denominations at Hillsdale. I cannot claim originality; much of what follows is heavily indebted to the discussion of ecumenical dialogue in Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth.


The Open Wound in the Church

Too often, the first Hillsdale conversations about religion are undertaken from the standpoint of the victorious conqueror, sure of the superiority of his creed and reveling in the purity of his church and its pristine theology. This self-congratulatory theology is so busy patting itself on the back that it cannot see the fractures and imperfections in the Church illuminated by the light of Christ. The truly orthodox partner in dialogue, by contrast, must come to terms with the tragic reality that the church has not lived up to Christ’s prayer in John 17:21 that “they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us.”

This unity is not a choice Christ gives to the Church, or a minor good which might reduce conflict and allow for more effective cooperation. Nor is it a matter of putting on a good face for the non-Christian world. Rather, the unity of the Church is grounded in the unifying love of the Trinity, in the profound unity of Christ’s person, and in the common baptism by which we are all placed in the body of Christ. Nor does the concept of an invisible universal church allow us to ignore this command or take the tragedy lightly. As Karl Barth said, “[the Church] is clearly and materially visible as a community with a communal office… There is no escape-hatch from the visible to the invisible Church.” To think otherwise would be to imagine the church as disembodied, not truly social, and insubstantial except in the otherworldly realm.

Balthasar added that “if we are aware of the true nature of the Church, we must feel this split not only as a daily wound but even more as a constantly burning shame. The essence, and not merely the name, of the church is agape: unity in love. So every lapse from this unity calls the very substance of the Church into question.” Although it might seem a discouraging beginning for religious dialogue, recognition of the tragedy of disunity prevents any attempt see the conversation as a battle or a mission to convert others to a pristine and unified church. Only when we approach our fellow students with the intent of healing a gaping wound in a unity that should transcend our particular churches can we ensure that our hearts are in the right place, with the one who comes “bringing healing in his wings” rather than with the thief who “comes to steal, kill, and destroy.”


Victimhood and Remorse

When friends come together to try to heal their small corner of the centuries-long tragedy of disunity, they must give up their victimhood narratives. I once heard a diplomatic negotiator explain that the main problem with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations was that over decades the Palestinian leaders had convinced their people that they were innocent victims of Israeli aggression, and vice-versa. The problem, he said, is that when people see themselves as victims, they refuse to allow for anything other than complete surrender from their “oppressors” and any sort of real conversation and negotiation becomes impossible. With centuries of distrust and even persecution, it is easy for Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants to rest in easy narratives in which they emerge as the good guys, untouched by sin and division. The Orthodox can point to western crimes at the Siege of Constantinople and to their own adherence to ancient tradition to create a narrative in which they are have pristinely maintained the faith against the compromises and betrayals of the West. Protestants can tell a story of abuses in the church that necessitated reforms which were met with anathemas and eventually with warfare. Catholics can blame Luther for disrupting the church and throwing Europe into a more chaotic state while they maintained apostolic succession and the fullness of truth. We can debate the merits of each of these narratives, but when each side adopts one of them as the complete story, dividing the world into the black-hat and white-hat cowboys, discussion will be impossible: there will be no common ground and no room for repentance on either side.


Instead, we should recognize that the Church, as a phenomenon which is human as well as divine, always struggles with the misunderstandings, mistakes, and blatant sins of its leaders, theologians, and lay people. One need not give up one’s Lutheranism to admit that Luther’s tone and temperament did not help matters, nor need one give up one’s Catholicism in admitting the abuses of the church and even dangerous slips toward accounts of salvation which did not fully emphasize dependence upon God’s grace. One might admit such guilt and still contend that God has guided and sustained one’s tradition in unique ways. Even papal infallibility and the concept of a magisterium are compatible with this humility. As Balthasar put it, “The individual Christian, at any rate, who enters into dialogue will immediately recognize that guilt is shared by both sides and will be able to confess this guilt openly without harming the obligation to defend the truth.” To do otherwise would be self-righteous, to see ourselves as the innocent victim – which can only be Christ, and even he did not defend his innocence but bore the guilt of others. It is when dialogue partners are willing to bear each the burdens of the misunderstandings, harsh denunciations, and defensiveness of the other and confess their own culpability and that of their tradition that unity can come.


Encounter and Dependence

The humility to step outside the narratives of victimhood we have told about ourselves and notice the Church’s wounds and our own culpability is the first step towards dialogue, but it is predominantly a negative one. It paves the way for the most important step, which is to recognize that we listen to one another because we really have something to receive that we do not already possess. Hillsdale freshmen frequently see dialogue as debate, where the goal is to win the other over to your own position, not acknowledging the possibility that the other might have an insight that will require you to modify your position while remaining true to your conviction. Perhaps discussion with the Orthodox can help Protestants and Catholics to appreciate the communal and sensory nature of their faith in a more vivid way. Lutherans surely have something to offer Catholics in their pastoral emphasis on the perpetual emphasis on the Gospel and the Cross, which can never be forgotten. Catholics can remind Orthodox of the universality of the Church, which must overcome ethnic boundaries, although ethnic ties remain important. Catholics might be able to offer Lutherans another perspective on sanctification to supplement the focus on the law-gospel tension: the transcendence of that tension through grace, as shown in the lives of the saints.

What is vital is a recognition that when we discuss our beliefs with our friends, we are participating in a real encounter. As Balthasar writes, “everyone wants to encounter the other rather than be willing to be met… in a dialogue, a willingness to heart out the other is more important than talking.” Again, this requires a humility that is difficult to develop. However, this this step cannot be bypassed: “Something is really being said to us and that we can answer only after we have really listened, The Church, too, at Nicea, Ephesus and Trent first listened and assembled in silence and meditation before delivering herself of an answer.” The reason for this receptive posture is not mere courtesy or the belief that listening fosters cooperation. There is theological justification for believing that we have something to learn from those who belong to other religious traditions and even for acknowledging that the fragments of the Church each harbor a unique insight.

Only when the Body of Christ is whole can it utter truth in its fullness. Balthasar explained, “According to a well-known position of Newman, the Catholic Church can see herself as the embodiment of wholeness and totality only when she has done all in her power actively to incorporate the riches of all partial points of view.” Even those who belong to churches with the most dramatic claims about the coherence, integrity, and divine preservation of their doctrine can acknowledge that they need the other in order to fully search out their own mystery, to paraphrase Nostra Aetate’s proclamation of the necessity of dialogue with Judaism.


Speaking in Foreign Tongues?

Perhaps the most obvious failure of early Hillsdale conversations is the failure to accommodate ourselves to the vocabulary of our friends. As Balthasar constantly points out, the gospel is not bound to one language or philosophical vocabulary, but these “tongues” do present a challenge. Many a conversation has been derailed by allegations that Catholics pray to Mary or worship her (brushing up on the different between dulia and latria might help avoid this theological cul-de-sac). Conversations can go on for hours without the realization that key terms like grace, law, and faith are being used equivocally. Instead of grappling with the substance of other positions, most people fail to overcome the linguistic boundaries, unwittingly constructing strawmen because they import their own understandings of the terms involved. Worse, there are many terms that traditions do not share in common. The Protestant division between justification and sanctification may only draw blank stares from a Catholic, while terms like merit conjure up nightmarish bogeymen for Protestants. Our histories and traditions have expressed the gospel in language that is influenced by philosophical movements like Neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism, and larger-than-life figures like Augustine and Luther have left indelible marks on their theological descendants.

If we want to truly talk to one another, we will have to learn to understand the other’s position from the inside out, which will require time, humility, and an act of imagination. As Balthasar wrote, “It has often been said that the Fathers of Trent gave a medieval answer to a modern question… were they always addressed to the actual question being posed? Could the questioners really understand the answer?” At Hillsdale, we should ask ourselves these same questions when talking late into the night over contentious points of doctrine. It is important to note that the words we choose are important and theology must always express the Word in words. Nor should we assume that all disagreements can be eliminated on linguistic grounds. However, it may be that some issues, such as the Catholic and Orthodox dispute over the filoque clause in the Creed, can be resolved by the admission that we mean the same thing, or at least are closer to one another than we thought. If the Church is still guided by the Spirit that moved at Pentecost, it must still be possible for the gospel, no matter how imperfectly, to be heard in the different tongues of the Christian world.


A Final Danger and a Final Hope

When we return to our combative freshmen conversations as sober upperclassmen, conscious of the wound in the Church and our own position of humility, we might go too far in the other direction. We might end up with what Vatican II called “false irenicism,” where we cover over our real differences for the sake of mere peace, something both Barth and Balthasar were worried about. However, if we truly understand the meaning of unity, we will not be fully satisfied until we can receive the sacraments together and profess the creed in solidarity with one another. Like churches, friends (and couples) need to have these difficult conversations rather than ignoring them. Our desire to be one must be subservient to the object of our faith. We cannot compromise or dilute our essential beliefs to accommodate the other. As difficult as it may be, we must pursue unity together with faithfulness to our convictions, “Even when,” in Barth’s words, “neither side budges from its position and the gulf between the parties seems to grow all the wider.”

However, it may be that when we search our own mystery and strive to better understand our deepest convictions and the object of our worship, we will find that we can accommodate each other without compromise on the fundamentals. Even the firmly Reformed theologian Barth wondered whether, as some point, the only obstacles might be “small, inconsequential differences that may still otherwise divide us from Rome and that are of little advantage to us anyway.” As David Bentley Hart hopes for Orthodox/Catholic dialogue, we will begin to question whether we had the authority to separate in the first place, something that Barth notes was only done, in the case of the early Reformers “with a heavy heart.” As for me, I hope that my conversations with my friends, so enriched by trust and love, will so surpass the misunderstandings and aggression of early failed attempts that we will find real unity. I prayerfully hope with Balthasar, who, quoting Barth, thought that “If each church really ‘thinks through to the end’ her own doctrines in obedience to revelation, it could happen that both sides might discover they share a common position.” God willing, this tantalizing hope lies ahead of us, but only if we are willing to lay down our arms and practice kenosis – the self-emptying love Christ displayed in the incarnation – while talking through the substantial differences that remain between us. Only then will we hear the voice of God calling to us through the other, summoning us further up and further in, towards that mystical eschatological union where Christ will be all in all.

Timothy Troutner is a senior studying history and philosophy.

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